Carnegie Mellon University
August 13, 2020

Chemistry Professor Assisting COVID-19 Vaccine Effort

By Ben Panko

Research Professor of Chemistry Mark Bier has been supporting a Pittsburgh-based team working to develop an innovative potential vaccine for COVID-19.

The vaccine candidate in question would be delivered not as a typical needle injection but rather via a fingertip-sized patch with an array of microneedles. The vaccine candidate was developed by a team from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and was based on work that had already been done for previous coronaviruses. The patches were co-developed by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) and a Carnegie Mellon University team led by Professor of Mechanical Engineering Burak Ozdoganlar.

“Our ability to rapidly develop this vaccine was a result of scientists with expertise in diverse areas of research working together with a common goal,” said Louis Falo, professor and chair of dermatology at Pitt’s School of Medicine and UPMC, in a statement.

Those scientists working together now include Bier and his team at Carnegie Mellon University using experimental and commercial mass spectrometers from his lab and the Center for Molecular Analysis, which he directs. After reading about the vaccine candidate, which was the first for COVID-19 to be published after peer review, Bier said he immediately reached out to the leaders of the development effort, Falo and Andrea Gambotto, associate professor of surgery at Pitt’s School of Medicine, to offer his lab's expertise in mass spectrometry.

Bier's research group has long been at the leading edge of mass spectrometry, including being the first lab in the United States to make use of a Superconducting Tunnel Junction cryodetector for ultra-high mass analysis of synthetic nanoparticle and viral particles. This expertise in measuring heavy particles has come in handy for developing a Pittsburgh-based vaccine candidate, which relies on subunits of viral proteins that have masses difficult to pin down with conventional mass spectrometry.

Bier's work on characterizing these immunogens was awarded $25,000 by the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development as part of its effort to support efforts at Pennsylvania colleges and universities toward mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are fortunate to have some of the brightest minds in our higher education system, and they rose to the challenge in supporting our commonwealth during this unprecedented time,” Gov. Tom Wolf said in announcing the funding.

Bier said that doing mass spectrometry in the midst of a pandemic has been a challenge. "Much of our work is best done in person and within six feet," he said, but his team, including postdoctoral research associate Li-Xue Jiang and graduate student Liam Dugan, has risen to the occasion. Any amount of frustration is worth it for Bier, however.

"Most scientists would gladly offer their expertise and time to help stop the spread of COVID-19," Bier said.

This project was also funded in part by NSF Award 1611146.